CARES on campus: Stimulus program and higher ed

Breaking down the three-phase US stimulus program
Julie Miceli is a Chicago-based partner with Husch Blackwell LLP, and Anne D. Cartwright is an attorney in Husch Blackwell LLP's Kansas City office.
Julie Miceli (left) is a Chicago-based partner with Husch Blackwell LLP, and Anne D. Cartwright is an attorney in Husch Blackwell LLP’s Kansas City office.

For several weeks, Congress has been working to develop a stimulus package in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The stimulus program is not just one piece of legislation; thus far, it’s three.

Collectively, these three laws—including the law enacted by Congress on March 27—will provide unprecedented financial support to the nation to address both the immediate and potentially long-term healthcare and economic impact of COVID-19.

Read: 63 free higher ed resources during coronavirus pandemic

The program contains significant funding for higher education institutions, along with meaningful benefits for student borrowers. Here, we break down how that support will arrive on campus.

The stimulus program generally governs the period of pandemic emergency. While the three laws include numerous waivers of existing requirements for existing public benefits and social programs, several provisions will sunset at specified times and/or upon the cessation of the emergency period.

In addition to providing direct funding to prevent and combat COVID-19 and support impacted individuals, families and business sectors—including higher ed—the program also provides necessary administrative funding to federal agencies to manage and monitor these programs.

The program contains significant funding for higher education institutions, along with meaningful benefits for student borrowers.

Phase 1: Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020

Covers: Treatment, vaccines, SBA loans, medicare treatment access

On March 6, Congress enacted PL 116-123 (H.R. 6074), which provides: emergency funding to federal agencies; grants and cooperative agreements to support COVID-19 prevention and development of new and affordable treatments and vaccines; and waivers of certain telehealth requirements for phone and video consultations between medical providers and Medicare recipients.

In addition, this law provides significant relief to small businesses to qualify for “Economic Injury Disaster Loans” through the Small Business Administration. Notably, private, nonprofit high ed institutions of any size may qualify for loans of up to $2 million to meet financial obligations and operating expenses that could have been met absent COVID-19. The loans may be used to pay fixed debts, payroll, accounts billable and other bills. So long as the institutions’ state has opted to participate in the program, the SBA encourages small business to apply. Loans under this program will be awarded until the appropriation has been depleted or the application deadline of December 21, 2020, whichever comes first.

Read: CARES Act offers billions to aid college students

Phase 2: Families First Coronavirus Response Act

Covers: Virus testing, benefits and social programs, paid sick and family leave

On March 18, Congress enacted PL 116-127 (H.R. 6201), an emergency supplemental appropriation. The law:

  • guarantees free COVID-19 testing through restrictions on insurers and a mechanism for uninsured individuals to obtain testing at no cost
  • expands several public benefits and social programs, including: unemployment benefits and food assistance for children, the elderly, and individuals with disabilities under the National School Lunch Program, SNAP, and other food and nutrition programs
  • establishes expanded Family Medical Leave and provides emergency paid sick leave for employees of public institutions and private employers with fewer than 500 employees to protect workers facing COVID-19-related absences
  • creates payroll tax credits for employers based on qualifying sick leave wages and family leave wages, as well as tax credits for certain self-employed individuals for qualifying sick and family leave, to assist certain employers in paying for expanded leave

Also, to ensure swift access to expanded benefits, the law establishes opportunities for regulated entities to seek temporary waivers of certain requirements of the public benefit programs addressed in the law.

Read: Schools offer summer scholarships to cope with disruptions

Phase 3: The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act

Covers: Bailouts for taxpayers, students, states, private industries and the education sector

On March 27, Congress enacted [H.R. 748], known as the CARES Act, which provides direct support to taxpayers, student borrowers, states, certain private industries, and educational institutions. At $2.3 trillion, this is the largest stimulus bill in U.S. history, exceeding the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which infused the nation with $787 billion in response to the 2008 economic collapse.

This third phase of the stimulus program, also referred to by Senate Majority Leader McConnell as an “emergency relief bill,” provides numerous benefits to the higher education sector under a section of the law called The COVID-19 Pandemic Education Relief Act of 2020. Notably, this includes institutions of higher education (IHE) defined under sections 101 and 102 of the Higher Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1001-02, including two- and four-year public colleges and universities, nonprofit colleges and universities, for-profit colleges and universities, and postsecondary vocational schools.

We summarize each component of the law related to IHEs below.

Relief for IHEs Through State Grants

One of the most significant components of the new stimulus installment is the Education Stabilization Fund, which provides $30.75 billion to support the education sector. This fund has two main components: the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund and the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.

The Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (approximately $3 billion) will provide funding to governors to support their states’ school districts and IHEs. By April 27, governors will be invited to apply for funding. Applications will be approved or denied within 30 days. Approved applications will be funded based on the state’s portion of population ages 5-24 and population of children counted under the Elementary Secondary Education Act. Funds through this program are available for IHEs and can be used for the following purposes:

  • Funds may be used to provide emergency support to IHEs, through grants from the state, in serving students within the state who have been most impacted by COVID-19, and to support educational services and ongoing functionality of the institution.
  • As deemed by the governor as essential, funds may be used by IHEs to carry out emergency educational services for students; provide childcare, early childhood education, and social and emotional support; and protect education-related jobs.

Nearly 90% of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (approximately $14.25 billion) will be available to IHEs to prevent, prepare for and respond to COVID-19. Of this portion, 75% of funds are afforded to IHEs based on each institution’s relative share of full-time Pell Grant recipients who were not exclusively enrolled in distance education prior to the emergency; 25% will be allocated based on the same basis for full-time non-Pell Grant recipients. The remaining 10% of funds will support IHEs though existing HEA programs, as follows:

Read: COVID-19: How the higher ed business model is changing

Waiver of IHE payment requirements

  • Campus-based aid waiver of non-federal share: For nonprofit institutions, the non-federal (aka “matching”) contribution to campus-based aid programs will be waived for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 award years. (Campus-based aid programs are the Federal Work Study [FWS] and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant [FSEOG] programs.)
  • R2T4 waivers: During the period of emergency, IHEs will not be required to return Title IV aid disbursed to students who withdraw due to the COVID-19 outbreak. IHEs are, however, required to report information relating to the student and amount that would otherwise have been returned.
  • Historically black colleges and universities: The law permits the U.S. Department of Education to defer the principal and interest payments on loans, which are generally provided to assist in capital financing, to HBCUs.

IHE compliance flexibility

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Financial aid relief for students and borrowers

  • Emergency aid: Institutions may use FSEOG funds to award emergency grants to undergraduate and graduate students for unexpected expenses or unmet need resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak. For 2019-20, grants may be up to $6,195. This emergency aid will not count as “estimated financial assistance” that would otherwise reduce future need-based aid. Institutions may contract with scholarship-granting organizations to administer these grants under certain conditions. To help fund this initiative, institutions may transfer up to 100% of their remaining FWS funds to FSEOG during a period of qualifying emergency.
  • Tax relief: To encourage employers to implement student loan repayment programs, the legislation includes a tax relief through 2020 allowing employers to exclude from their income up to $5,250 per employee for employer-paid student loan repayment assistance and tuition/textbook assistance.
  • Loan repayment relief: The law hits the pause button on all federal student loan and interest payments until September 30. That means those payments can be deferred without penalty up to that date.
  • Federal Work Study wages: The law allows IHEs to continue paying FWS students who are unable to fulfill their work study obligations due to the COVID-19 outbreak. This allowance is available up to one academic year.
  • Lifetime eligibility waiver: Students who withdraw from their IHE due to the COVID-19 outbreak will not have that “semester (or the equivalent)” deducted from their lifetime eligibility for federal subsidized loans and Pell grants.
  • Teach grant requirements waiver: Borrowers who received a TEACH grant and who are teaching in high-need areas may be excused from the terms of the grant and still qualify for loan forgiveness if they are unable to fulfill the terms of service due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Julie Miceli is a Chicago-based partner with Husch Blackwell LLP where she advises colleges and universities on legal issues related to campus safety, financial aid and development matters. Miceli previously served as the deputy general counsel for higher education and federal student aid at the U.S. Department of Education. Anne D. Cartwright is an attorney in Husch Blackwell LLP’s Kansas City office where she provides compliance audits, policy development, investigations, customized training and general counsel services to public, private, nonprofit and proprietary educational institutions. 

UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.

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